Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Big Over Easy

Jasper Fforde confuses the hell out of me.

Conventional wisdom says that if you're going to set a story in a fantasy world - even a comedy one - then you don't want to stretch suspension of disbelief too far. You make one big change, maybe two, and everything flows from there. People will accept that. Your story will work.

If Jasper Fforde has ever heard this conventional wisdom, he doesn't give a toss about it. He's now written five novels - The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten and The Big Over Easy - not one of which is remotely concerned with credibility as we know it. They shouldn't work. And yet they do.

Imagine Terry Pratchett, crossed with the metatextual stuff from Grant Morrison, and marinaded in the comedy department of BBC Radio 4, and you'll be getting close. Under the guise of a slightly twee and cosy sort of British comedy, Fforde is a seriously weird writer, with a spectacular disregard for the usual way of making these stories work.

The first four of his five novels are part of the Thursday Next series. Lost in a Good Book is sort of at right angles to Thursday Next's world, but I'll come back to that in a bit. Thursday is Fforde's recurring heroine, operating out of an implausibly exciting parallel Swindon. Even trying to describe the ground rules of Thursday's parallel world takes time, as it's littered with bizarre deviations from history, and part of the entertainment value of the books is trying to work out what on earth happened in the bits of history that Thursday, as narrator, didn't bother to explain. By the time Thursday's stories begin, in the 1980s, the Crimean War is still going, the United Kingdom has broken up, the dodo has been reintroduced through amateur home cloning, and the President of England is George Formby. Oh, and Britain has a secret police, part of which is devoted to thwarting attempts to revise the timeline.

None of this has anything to do with the premise of Thursday's books. That's how warped a world this is. In part, this is Fforde's central joke - he writes stories set in worlds that have clearly been horribly deformed somewhere along the line, but nobody seems to notice that anything's wrong.

The big idea of the Thursday Next books, however, is that Thursday has the power to enter books. All of fiction exists as a sort of parallel dimension, each book as a world in its own right, and Thursday ends up doing double duty with the real-world secret police and the Bookworld's in-house police force - which, naturally, is mostly comprised of minor characters who have spare time during the chapters when they're not appearing. Oh, and there's a long-running feud with an evil corporation called Goliath, which, let's face it, is a bit obvious. (It picks up in book four when Goliath decides to reinvent itself as a religion.)

These are weird and intricate novels which manage to take the most ludicrous worlds imaginable, and somehow make them (more or less) internally coherent. The Bookworld could easily become horribly twee, but the alternate history device allows Fforde to dodge the problem of copyrighted books, and turns it into a weird but strangely compelling alternate world. Fforde has clearly put an awful lot of effort into working out just how the Bookworld is meant to operate. Part of the reason I like his books is that I find myself picking holes in the concepts and going "Yeah, but....", only to find the problem being politely knocked on the head five chapters later. He's ahead of me, damn him.

(By the way, if you want to read the Thursday Next novels, you'll want to begin at the beginning with The Eyre Affair, and if you haven't already done so, that means you'll want to read Jane Eyre. Don't let that put you off. You don't technically need to read it, but you'll miss the point of the pay-off if you don't know the plot, and it's a really good novel anyway, so go read it.)

The Big Over Easy is Fforde's first break from the Thursday Next series, and it doesn't quite win me over as much. Reportedly, it's a complete rewrite of a novel that was rejected before the Thursday Next series took off, but he's now turning it into a parallel series of its own. Set in a parallel Reading, DCI Jack Spratt leads the bafflingly arbitrary Nursery Crime Division, which deals with criminal investigations involving Reading's inexplicably high proportion of nursery rhyme characters. Book one, as the title would suggest, is the murder of Humpty Dumpty. And yes, he's an egg.

On top of the weird nursery character premise, it's also a world with a seriously screwed-up police force, where everything operates according to the rules of drawing-room mystery novels, and thinly-disguised versions of Inspector Morse and Miss Marple are the embodiment of quality detective work. To achieve popularity - and therefore funding - it's not enough to actually solve crimes. You have to solve them in a way that makes for a compelling narrative.

This latter bit actually works. There's something perversely plausible about a world where types of evidence are ruled inadmissible on the grounds that they're cliched. The nursery rhyme stuff, on the other hand, strains credibility to breaking point. The idea is that the nursery rhyme characters don't realise what they are. They feel strangely compelled to perform their stories when the opportunity arises, but otherwise they just ignore it. For Jack, this is reasonably plausible. But for a talking egg? I can't quite buy that, even by Fforde's unusually elastic standards. I'm not quite sure why, because I didn't have a problem with the Gingerbreadman as a serial killer... but then, I don't have to run with that as the central premise for the whole book.

It makes rather more sense in the context of the Thursday Next books (although, again, you don't need to have read them to understand this one). A subplot in book four ended with Thursday taking the nursery rhyme characters from the oral tradition and offering them a place to live in the unpublished Caversham Heights, an ultra-generic detective story which was unpublished for a reason. The Big Over Easy is meant to be the result of this politically convenient genre-mangling. So if you must have an explanation for this weird book, it's right there in the Thursday Next series. Not that you're really meant to look at it in that light - it's more of an easter egg.

Despite my reservations, though, it's still a perversely entertaining book - and, as with all Fforde's novels, it takes its ludicrous set-up and follows it through with remorselessly rigorous logic. The plot may be intentionally convoluted as a detective story pastiche, but still clings tenaciously to its own internal logic. It's a good book. But I still prefer the dizzyingly abstract stuff from the Thursday Next books, a world which makes no more logical sense than this one, but somehow feels like it should.